Resident advisors struggle to feel at home

Why is it that more RAs than ever seem to be having a difficult experience in the position?

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Various Muhlenberg resident advisors. The RAs in this photo are not affiliated with this article.

As a first year at Muhlenberg, your resident advisor is likely one of the first people that you meet on campus. Hall meetings are often one of the initial things that occur after the families leave on move-in day. This means that resident advisors, or RAs, are often the first upperclassmen that first years are acquainted with and therefore their touchstone when it comes to check-ins, seeking advice or when emergencies arise.

But what sort of toll does that take on the students who serve as RAs? What happens when the student body is off-campus in some capacity for almost two years and then abruptly returns to being in-person? This year, as RAs have helped to handle an uptick in struggles for students who aren’t acquainted with on-campus life, it has become clear that the position is more than hall meetings and late-night duty rounds. It has the potential to truly impact students’ lives—positively and negatively.

“This year has been different because of COVID. And I’m not just talking about keeping up with policies, but our residents, the people have changed,” stated Zaire Carter ‘22, current Hall Director (HD) of Martin Luther Hall (ML), which houses primarily sophomores and juniors. “The sophomores living in ML didn’t have the chance to have a full first-year experience. Being able to support our residents was critical to the RA role, even we as an RA team had to think of different ways to support our residents because our residents are different and have changed. It’s always a pleasure to be that support resource for someone else, but we have to constantly create ways to support each other.”

Caitlin Strain ‘22, who has been an RA for three years and is the current HD of Walz, has had a similar experience this year. Living in a building that mainly houses first-year students, she has seen firsthand the impact of online learning on the underclassman experience. “Normally, [first years] learn how Muhlenberg works through the upperclassmen,” Strain stated. “They hear stories and learn traditions that the student body undertakes, but 3/4 of us haven’t experienced them.”

I felt like I had to be perfect all the time.

Anonymous

How does this lack of on-campus experience impact the student body? It comes down to mental health. Strain went on to say, “This year there were a LOT of mental health issues. More than normal. Across all class years. Trying to transition back to a new normal after two years online has been significantly more difficult than anyone anticipated. Students needed to re-develop their academic, social and emotional stamina.” 

For an anonymous RA in one of the first year residence halls, this struggle with skill re-development began at the very beginning of this academic year. “The first year area had a horrendous first week and first weekend… [it] was so hard and I feel like it set the tone for the entire semester, which was really hard because it felt like we weren’t being supported as RAs.” This lack of support, in their opinion, originated from the Housing & Residence Life office, otherwise known as HRL. “I’ve had it happen so many times where I’ve gone to HRL and have felt unsupported. Like I didn’t have any leverage. I felt like I had to be perfect all the time.”

Another RA, who also chose to remain anonymous, agreed. “This year has made me consider my future as an RA multiple times, even almost not applying to be an RA again in the following year. They have made the job of an RA more emotionally taxing than it already is, and leaves a lot of holes in the information that is brought to us. I have chosen to be an RA again, but I know that the year ahead will be challenging, especially with a lot of new faces in the department.”

Yet another RA who requested to retain their anonymity echoed this sentiment. “I think taking on an RA job this year was a bit much for me, considering I have yet to experience a real college experience since I arrived here in 2020. I will not be continuing my position.”

If these issues continue, I think we’re going to see a lot more RAs step down in order to take care of themselves.

Anonymous

“There has been a lot of criticism towards HRL over the last year,” Strain commented. “Many RAs feel disconnected from HRL which is understandable based on how busy everyone is. I personally have a good relationship with [the professional staff] because I work directly with them as an HD. They are incredible people and super supportive and I will personally miss them all so much when I graduate.”

“There are certain people I can trust and go to but as a whole, the [HRL] department needs work,” the first anonymous RA elaborated. “They are so incredibly understaffed that I don’t feel like they are properly prepared to handle all of the stuff that the RAs need from them. We need more professional staff. There cannot be one [professional staff member] on-call person for all RAs. That is not okay. As the administration, maybe you should be thinking about hiring more HRL staff to support our 70+ RAs that are doing us a service because RAs are the ones on the front lines. There are people there that I love so dearly but they need some help because they’re losing the faith of the RAs.”

A different anonymous RA agreed. “Being an RA this year has been more difficult and draining than I ever expected. I love my residents and being a support system for them, but it’s hard to find a balance between being an RA and maintaining your own boundaries,” they said. “ I really hope to continue being an RA, but I have been faced with the difficulty of balancing my own mental health with my role as an RA. If these issues continue, I think we’re going to see a lot more RAs step down in order to take care of themselves.”

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